I find myself strangely moved by Christopher Hitchens’ confrontation with advanced—perhaps terminal—cancer. I say “strangely” because I know the man only through his prodigious body of work, which reveals the British-born essayist as both a first-rate writer and, at times, a bit of an ass. His life has always struck me as a romantic performance, as he’s played the role of indignant moralist, flaying hypocrites, despots, and a long list of villains (from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa), with a smoldering cigarette in one hand and a drawn sword in the other. The show has never been dull, and often quite brilliant. Suddenly faced with mortality, Hitchens has begun his last assignment, explaining in his droll, sharply observed prose his “deportation” to the land of the gravely sick. (See People.) As much as he’d like to “battle” cancer with his usual ferocity, he informs us, chemotherapy, damn it, lacks all romance. “When kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm,” he writes, “and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.”
A heartbreaking bit of writing, that. An ardent atheist, Hitchens makes this journey without the comfort of faith or belief in an afterlife. For him, the ironic distance of words and metaphor will have to do. The performance goes on, as he shows us all—who will follow him soon enough—how one so clearly in love with life lets go of it.